Flying Over Water by Shannon Hitchcock and N.H. Senzai has been getting rave reviews, including a star from Kirkus Reviews. So, naturally, I jumped at the chance to interview the co-authors. I loved reading all about the novel, their inspiration, and their process of writing together. I’m sure you will, too.
Don’t forget to enter the rafflecopter below for a chance to win a signed copy of the book.
How did the two of you meet, and how did the idea for the collaboration on Flying Over Water come about?
Shannon: Naheed and I have never met. The initial inspiration for Flying Over Water struck when a high school friend’s daughter converted to Islam. I started researching the religion, not entirely sure where the journey would take me.
About that same time, I saw a photo of a Syrian refugee and her young son in my minister’s office. They held a sign that said WE ARE FROM SYRIA CAN YOU HELP US? I wrote a manuscript about a Christian girl whose church helps a Syrian refugee family, but then I started paying attention to #ownvoices. I wondered if my story was centered on the wrong character? I decided to seek a co-author and after reading Naheed’s book, Escape from Aleppo, knew she would be the perfect partner.
Naheed: One day, I got an email from my agent relaying an offer from Shannon’s agent to possibly co-author a book with her. I was intrigued so asked to read the manuscript. I immediately connected with the story of a Syrian girl, Noura, arriving to the United States as a refugee, befriended by an American girl, Jordyn.
My previous book, Escape from Aleppo, was about a family fleeing the Syrian war and ending up in a Turkish refugee camp. Noura’s story provided an opportunity to explore what would happen to a such family, if they were granted asylum in the United States. The next thing we did was have a long phone conversation. We got to know each other and discussed how to co-author an engaging and interesting story that incorporated both our ideas. Once the groundwork was laid, we got busy writing Flying Over Water.
What was your process in writing the two points of view?
We plotted the manuscript chapter-by-chapter using Google Docs. Once we agreed on plot, the spreadsheet became a living document that we constantly updated. We sent chapters back and forth via email and critiqued each other’s work using Track Changes.
What kind of research did you have to do?
Naheed: My books tend to be research intensive; I spend months reading, absorbing, and cataloging information about the subject I’m writing about. What helped me to jump into writing Flying Over Water was the research I’d already done for Escape from Aleppo. I am not from Syria, but I’ve lived and traveled throughout the Middle East and have many friends in the region.
It also helped that my husband teaches Middle East politics, so he assists in putting the history and politics of the region in perspective. I also spoke to many journalists and Syrians who shared first-hand accounts of the terrible conflict. My goal is to make sure that the nuances of history, politics, culture, and food of the region ring true so that the story is as accurate as possible.
Shannon: My minister introduced me to Janet Blair, the Community Liaison for Refugee Services, Suncoast Region. Janet answered my questions about the resettlement process and arranged for me to meet several Syrian girls. I also read non-fiction about the Syrian Civil War. Two books I highly recommend are A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea: One Refugee’s Incredible Story of Love, Loss, and Survival by Melissa Fleming and We Crossed A Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria by Wendy Pearlman. The Boston Globe series about Syrian refugees helped, too.
How close are your own personal stories to these characters’ stories?
Naheed: Noura’s story is an American story, similar to millions of other immigrants who come to America looking for a better life. With a scholarship to study engineering at the University of Minnesota, my father arrived from India in 1963. However, the chilly Midwest winters had him fleeing west for warmer climes. When my sister was introduced to her class in San Francisco, the boys greeted her with war cries as they played cowboys to her Indian. It took a while for them to understand that she was not the Indian Columbus had stumbled upon, but the ones he was actually looking for, in his desire for wealth and spices from the East Indies.
Our family, like Noura’s, settled into life in America, enjoying its blessings but also dealing with discrimination and xenophobia. And nearly half a century later, challenges still exist. That’s why I felt it was important to begin our story on the day of President Trump’s Muslim Ban, which sent a chill through the Muslim-American community.
Shannon: I am a United Methodist like the character, Jordyn, and lived in Tampa for many years where the story is set. I made Jordyn a competitive swimmer whose favorite stroke is the butterfly because of my nephew, Drew Hitchcock. Drew is the NC state champion in the 200 fly. And finally, in the book, Jordyn’s mom has a miscarriage. I understand the pain of losing a child because one of my sons died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
For Teachers and Writers
What do you hope readers take away after reading Flying Over Water?
Naheed: I hope Flying Over Water can serve as a messenger of peace and understanding, and that its characters, their voices, and stories help young people embrace our shared humanity and be agents of positive change for their communities.
Shannon: I hope young readers are inspired to reach out and make friends with kids who may not look, sound, or worship the way they do. I hope it makes them question the world around them and pay attention to current events.
How can teachers use Flying Over Water in the classroom?
Naheed: A core element of our book is to highlight how young people can become positive agents of change for the schools, their community, and society at large. Although Noura and Jordyn come from different backgrounds they find out they have a lot in common. When faced with challenges such as xenophobia and intolerance, they band together with other students to fight for their rights, as afforded by the constitution and its amendments. Especially during a time where our rights and freedoms are in jeopardy, Flying Over Water serves as a starting off point to discuss these issues and find solutions for them.
Shannon: Flying Over Water would make an awesome read aloud. The chapters are short and dual narrators provide different perspectives of the same events. Social Studies teachers could also use Flying Over Water as a supplemental text to discuss religious freedom, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly.
For our readers, who are also writers, can you give us one of your favorite writing tips?
Naheed: Keep reading – the best writers are dedicated readers of all manner of things, especially non-fiction. Also, keep notes of the interesting facts, figures, and events you come across and weave them into your stories.
Shannon: Don’t revise in a vacuum. No matter how good you think your manuscript is, critique partners will make it better.
Learn More About the Authors
N.H. Senzai is the award-winning author of Escape from Aleppo, Ticket to India, and Saving Kabul Corner. Her first novel for young readers, Shooting Kabul, was the winner of the 2010 Asian/Pacific American Award (APALA) for Young Adult Literature, was an NPR Backseat Book Club Pick, and appeared on numerous awards lists. Ms. Senzai lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family. Visit her online at NHSenzai.com.
Shannon Hitchcock is the author of Saving Granddaddy’s Stories, One True Way, Ruby Lee & Me, and The Ballad of Jessie Pearl. Her books have been featured on many state awards lists and have received acclaimed reviews. Shannon recently moved from Tampa, Florida to Asheville, North Carolina. For more, visit her website at shannonhitchcock.com.
For a chance to win an autographed copy of Flying Over Water, enter the giveaway by clicking on the link below. (U.S. only)